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Kundera’s warnings are still relevant today

A conversation with Samuel Abrahám, Slovak intellectual and editor in chief and publisher of the Slovak journal Kritika & Kontext. Interviewer: Adam Reichardt

ADAM REICHARDT: Despite the fact that Milan Kundera was a well-known writer with some ground-breaking books and essays, he was quite a private person. You knew him personally, how would you describe Kundera, as a person, writer and a colleague?

SAMUEL ABRAHÁM: True, he was a very private person, but whoever knew him, was struck by his humour and joie de vivre. He told us many funny stories about his beginnings in France, often making fun of himself and he managed to catch you in his web of jokes, if unguarded. Above all, it was an amazing picture to see him and his wife Věra, being so close and also intellectual peers and humorous.

September 11, 2023 - Adam Reichardt Samuel Abrahám - InterviewsIssue 5 2023Magazine

Photo(c)Ctibor Bachraty

I would not call myself a friend but someone with whom I could correspond and occasionally discuss things that interested us the most – philosophy and Classical music. I have known Kundera since 2000. The reason I contacted him was quite ironic in retrospect. After the extremist Austrian politician Jörg Haider become part of the governing coalition, my Austrian friends refused to hold the Eurozine conference in Vienna and we decided to move it to Bratislava. Having just finished reading Kundera’s Betrayed Testaments, I suggested Milan Kundera as the keynote speaker in order to make our unexpected event in Bratislava more attractive. With my letter that I sent him, in order to entice him to reply, I added a review that I published about his book of essays. Of course, this was the year 2000 – still in the age of fax machines. To my shock, within a few hours, the fax machine was churning a reply by Milan Kundera! In it he apologised that he wouldn’t come to Bratislava explaining that he does not attend conferences or public events. Yet, he was really pleased with my review, writing that I highlighted so well the gist of his essay. Although he did not come to Bratislava for that event, for me it was the beginning of a rich intellectual encounter with the great writer. After the fax ceased to exist in 2004 or 2005, he refused to have his own email address. So I corresponded through his wife’s email. Sometimes he wrote and sometimes his wife would respond, quoting his messages. But we had a long correspondence, which often included his wife’s added words and thoughts.

This exchange lasted for a few years and then my wife and I finally met him in person in Paris. During our meeting, I expressed my wish to translate those books that were written in French into Slovak. I argued that if his books can be translated into Serbian, Slovenian and Japanese, then why not Slovak? He laughed and liked the idea that we would pull a few pranks if the Czechs would be forced to read his book in Slovak. A glass of good Armagnac sealed the deal. The reason for this strange arrangement was that he did not allow his French books to be translated into Czech by anyone but himself. But then he added that he does not have time to do it, for he would rather write another book. So, his books written in French were not translated into Czech or Slovak – only recently did the Brno publishing house Atlantis start to translate his books into Czech and simultaneously into Slovak.

He didn’t trust any translator to translate his works into Czech?

There are a number of very funny stories regarding this. He told me one about the Russian translation of one of his books. He said that a Russian woman came to see them and she was very nice and they had a very pleasant meeting and agreed for her to translate one of his novels. But when she sent the Russian manuscript, he went through the translation and was horrified. And he told me, “You know, I hate to read Russian but this translation was so awful that I had to read it through and, in the end, I refused it to be published.” So this experience made him also very cautious about the translation of his texts into any language. How did he check the Korean or Indian translations? I have no idea, but he and his wife, who was his manager for many years, developed a great relationship with their publishers and, I guess, trusted them. For his native Czech, he refused anyone else to translate his French texts. Věra wrote to me not long ago that the Czech translator Anna Kareninová, who is translating the novels, is excellent and, apparently, Kundera was pleased. He was quite ill for a while and, I guess, he gave up at some point on the intention to translate his books into his native Czech.

Kundera never authorised a biography for himself, which means we do not have a full insight into his life and experiences. Why was Kundera against this?

Kundera did not consider his life story as important, only his texts. Moreover, only those writings he approved, like a composer designating opus numbers, were to appear in collected works. In that, as he wrote somewhere, he followed Gustave Flaubert who also wished to be hidden behind the novel. Kundera wrote once that “everything I want to express is in my books … me as a person, I am not interesting.” For example, he wrote about Hemingway, with some frustration, that more books were written and read about him as a person, than his books. This is what Kundera wanted to avoid. But in fact, there was a large biography written about him in the Czech Republic by an exile Czech author, Ján Novak, who wrote about Kundera’s life in Czechoslovakia until he left for France. The book is quite controversial and Věra Kunderová told me after its publication that she would not even show it to Kundera who was quite ill by then. She was horrified that the book describes Kundera’s relationship with his father in a very negative way and that would hurt him for, as Věra insisted, Kundera loved and adored his father. And this is most likely why Kundera detested biographies – he knew that once they are written, they take on a life of their own.

Do you think there will be a biography now that he has passed away?

I am sure there will be a lot of biographies. Apparently, the same author is now writing a second part, on Kundera’s life after he had left for France. I really have no interest in reading those books, enough for me were a couple of interviews with Novak. More importantly, now that Kundera’s books are being translated into Czech (and Slovak) he is being rediscovered by the new generation. For now, it is only his novels but I hope the translation of his profound essays would not take too long to publish. In fact, when we met, we discussed the possibility of me publishing his essays in Slovak. Twice he gave me permission to publish his books but after a few weeks he would call or write that he cannot do it to his friends in Brno – Slovak being so close to Czech for him and he felt they should appear first in Czech.

Kundera left Czechoslovakia in 1975 to relocate to France. Why do you think he made this decision? Had he finally given up hope after the failure of the Prague Spring and the Warsaw Pact intervention?

We should not forget what the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia meant to us. It was a terrible tragedy, especially after all the hope of ‘68. The 1960s slowly relaxed the atmosphere in Czechoslovakia, but it really sped up after the memorable Czechoslovak Writers’ Congress in 1967, which, by the way, was organised by the editor of the Slovak cultural journal Kultúrny Život, Juraj Špitzer. Kundera wrote to me that Špitzer persuaded him to speak at the Congress. Even then Kundera was not really keen on giving public speeches. But he agreed, and gave a memorable speech there, like many others in attendance, including Václav Havel, Ludvík Vaculík and others. In fact, this Congress was one of the most important intellectual events of the time. From that moment on, things sped up, which led to Alexander Dubček coming to power in January 1968. All of a sudden, came an unexpected relaxation of censorship and initiation of Communist party’s reforms. Many communists who felt betrayed and who were imprisoned in the 1950s, but were true communists, thought they could revive socialism. This was the origin of the expression “socialism with a human face”. Thus, there was a belief, most likely false in retrospect, that socialism could be more humane, pluralistic and free. The level of intellectual discourse within Czechoslovakia was incredible and literary journals like Kultúrny Život and Litrerárni noviny had a print-run of over one hundred thousand per week. But of course, Russia, then as the Soviet Union, could not allow this democratic commotion to succeed at the periphery of its vast empire. It could have a domino effect among other countries in the bloc to emulate the reforms. And so, on August 21st, 1968, half a million soldiers were ordered by the Kremlin to occupy every village, every town of Czechoslovakia. Although initially there were several victims who were killed and there was no military or violent resistance from the Czechs and Slovaks. The resistance was through peaceful defiance, solidarity and bitter humour. I remember as a small eight-year-old boy that I would walk with my sister around Bratislava for hours. Within two or three days of the invasion, every window and every wall on the street was peppered with posters with jokes, caricatures and texts ridiculing the invaders. The first few months there was incredible solidarity among the population, the Quisling government that Moscow hoped to install did not take over.  There was still this great hope and amazing energy which emanated from the defiance of the whole population. It was a Gandhian resistance for almost six months.

But all that hope and aspiration was eventually smashed. The regime, led by Gustáv Husák and installed in 1969 by Moscow, gradually initiated political purges of anything related to the reforms of 1968. In particular, it targeted the intellectual elite and party members who supported the Prague Spring. They forced everyone who had some position to sign a humiliating letter, which stated that its undersigned agreed with the “brotherly help of the Warsaw Pact army”. Hence, the intellectuals who refused to sign it were expelled and lost their jobs and status. They were forced to find manual work or live without work although there were relatively few prison sentences. One of the millions purged was Kundera. He couldn’t publish or teach and became, as many Slovak and Czech intellectuals, an outcast, forced into internal exile. So when he received an invitation to teach at the university in Rennes, he first went there officially. But when he published some books which the regime found unacceptable, he was stripped of his Czechoslovak citizenship and he couldn’t return.

Interestingly, he did not become a member of the country’s dissident group. Of course, he knew them well, it was a small community. His position to face the occupiers differed from a small group of dissidents, including Havel. In The Power of the Powerless, Havel described living in truth – a philosophical approach on how to resist the official lie with insisting to tell and live in truth, whatever the costs. Kundera found it rather pathetic and elitist and believed an outcast must face the cynical communist regime through irony and humour. Some dissidents found his approach rather superfluous and ineffective. So, Kundera became rather isolated within a very intellectual circle. Besides, as Milan Uhde, Kundera’s friend and dissident, wrote recently once Kundera’s books were published in France with great acclaim, there was much envy from among his fellow intellectuals.

Of course, one of Kundera’s most important pieces, which has had a profound impact, is the essay which he published in 1984 titled the “Tragedy of Central Europe”. This piece of writing gave an agency to our region during a time in which anything like that was being eaten away by Soviet-led communism. How relevant is Kundera’s essay from today’s perspective? Can we say that the region has overcome its kidnapping a generation after joining NATO and the European Union? Also, how can we look at this essay through the lens of what is happening in Ukraine?

The original title of the essay was “The Kidnapped West” and first published in the French journal Le débat in 1983. It was the New York Review of Books which changed the title in 1984 and Kundera was not very fond of that change because altered the focus of the essay. In the early 1980s, we never thought that we would live to see the end of the Soviet empire, yet it was just a few years before its collapse. In his essay, Kundera castigated the West for giving up on its foundations, values, history and principles, stating that it had become complacent with the status quo. He tried to show how valuable Central Europe is, in its historical development, multicultural mosaic of languages, cultures, histories, philosophies, and that this part of the world is as “West” as Berlin or Paris. He was very disillusioned, not only was the West giving up on Central Europe but Central Europe was increasingly a premonition, an early warning of what could happen to the West. Kundera wrote that Europe did not even notice the end of its great cultural home, that Europe no longer feels its unity as a unity of culture. And that is why it was so easy for the West to give up on Central Europe. Kundera was saddened and alarmed by this.

This is why the essay was admired by so many western intellectuals who had similar concerns. As the expanded European Union would soon take shape, questions arose as to what truly unified it? Was it just borders, regulations, bureaucracy and economy? And what had happened to the spiritual domain, how would Eurozone define its values, principles, culture or history? Kundera writes in the essay that when he spoke to his French friends about this disturbing issue, they talked instead of TV shows or gossip rather than something that meant so much to him. After the fall of the Soviet Empire, the essay seemed to lose its purpose. The “Kidnapped West” has been liberated. However, after 40 years of publication, it again regains relevance. What unifies Europe now is the fate of and help for Ukraine because its defeat by imperial Russia would represent the defeat of that spiritual realm that Kundera was so fond of and so sad for its gradual demise. So in that sense, I think his essay is still relevant today.

Paradoxically, when I asked Kundera in 2011 to allow his famous essay to be republished in the book Yet Another Europe after 1984, edited by Leonidas Donskis, Kundera refused, writing to me rather apologetically a long letter explaining that he considered that essay “an occasional text” (příležitostní) which belongs to that time when it was published but should not be republished. So, we published that book dedicated to Kundera and his famous essay without that essay itself. In fact, he insisted that he refused to have it included in his collected works at Gallimard publishing house. It is curious irony but perhaps indicated the relevance of that text just before Kundera passed away, Gallimard republished Kundera’s essay under its original title “Kidnapped West”, along with his famous speech at the Czechoslovak writers’ congress from 1967.

It certainly would be useful to re-read the essay with today’s perspective in mind…

I want to add that the essay that was published in 1984 started an amazing debate not only in the West but also in Central Europe among intellectuals and dissidents. Regarding the concept of Central Europe, a debate continued on whether the region could re-emerge as a unit that was originally divided and destroyed by the Soviet invasion. If the borders in Central Europe become again fluid and free, many intellectuals asked in the late 1980s, what shape, what structure should Central Europe have? This debate came to a sudden halt in January 1990, when the communist regimes fell. However, the creation of the Visegrád Group in 1991 by three dissident leaders – Havel, Antall and Wałęsa – was, to some extent, an homage to that tested and previously “kidnapped” and in 1989 reborn Central Europe. Renewed interest in that essay today is a sign that the debate concerning Central Europe is worth revisiting because Europe in the 1980s is a premonition to the fate of Ukraine today.

How do you think Kundera’s heritage will be remembered in this region and his home of the Czech Republic? Do you think he will be cherished, criticised or forgotten?

There is a big conflagration surrounding Kundera that has been taking place in his homeland since 2008. He was accused by the Czech weekly publication Respekt of betraying someone in 1951. This person was returning from the West and was living in a dormitory where Kundera also lived. Apparently, Kundera informed on him. I do not know whether Kundera did this or not – the evidence is very inconclusive – but the way in which it was presented was disgusting. It was published without contacting Kundera and based on research done by someone who had a personal reason to exonerate his uncle in this case. Respekt published that issue on the day of the opening of the Frankfurt Book Fair, and the accusation dossier was translated into English and distributed to the participants of the book fair. It was also sent out to high schools around the Czech Republic. Kundera was shocked and felt very hurt by this. I remember talking to him afterwards and he was totally distraught. “This is an assassination of an author!”, he exclaimed into the phone. At first, I thought that this was done by the weekly which wanted to sensationalise a story in order to increase profits. But very recently Milan Uhde, a dissident and close friend of Kundera and Havel, revealed that in 1984 Havel organised a petition among the Czech dissidents to not have the Nobel Prize awarded to Kundera. Uhde writes now that if he had known that the petition was not just to support Jaroslav Seifert – who eventually won the prize – but rather was an “anybody but Kundera” petition, he wouldn’t have signed it. Uhde found it very disturbing that this was done to Kundera by his friends, colleagues and fellow dissidents from the Czech Republic. So this revelation about him being blocked for the Nobel Prize together with this accusation, was questioned by many authors and historians, made Kundera very bitter. Evidently, the hostility between Kundera and Havel had been quite palpable – originating back in the 1960s. A few days after Kundera died, I corresponded with his wife Věra, she wrote to me that they really had wished to have been able to come home, to spend their last years in Brno. But they couldn’t because of that horrible 2008 accusation. I cannot confirm it, but she even suggested that Havel was aware of the accusation being concocted by Respekt in 2008. It is such a sad story that Kundera had to die in Paris, alone, despite his wishes to return to his beloved Brno. What makes this tragedy even more sad is that many of his books were not translated for decades into Czech and Slovak whereas the whole world could read them in hundreds of translations. It is only now that he is finally returning home as an author, intellectual and a prophet of Central Europe, as another famous son of this liberated “Kidnapped West” who died in exile. I hope that he will be cherished and discovered by each new generation, because there is so much to discover in his novels and essays and his thoughts, as with all classics, will have unique relevance for each subsequent generation.

Milan Kundera died July 11th 2023 in Paris at the age of 94. He was born in Brno in 1929.

Samuel Abrahám is the editor in chief and publisher of the journal Kritika & Kontext  (www.kritika.sk) and rector of the Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts (BISLA).

Adam Reichardt is the editor in chief of New Eastern Europe and co-host of the Talk Eastern Europe podcast.

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